So this ice storm comes racing hell-for-leather across Piedmont North Carolina, pretty much the very second I get into my car to go to Dale Earnhardt’s memorial service. Which is in south Charlotte, which is maybe three hours from my house. I figure the interstate’ll be OK, but it’s not. Northbound there’s an 18-wheeler jack-knifed on the shoulder, and southbound two minivans are doing the Virginia reel. My own self, I’m not that brave. So I turn around and head gingerly back down the road to the Lil Bar, a runt-sized watering hole out in rural Orange County, figuring to watch the memorial on TV.

Dale Earnhardt has been dead for four days now, killed in a wreck in the final seconds of the Daytona 500. In those four days I have witnessed women sobbing in the parking lot of the Wal-Mart, grown men dashing tears from their eyes at the Dunkin’ Donuts. I have listened to one mother tell another that her sons were “too tore up” to go to school. I have seen newspaper and television accounts of racetrack memorials, prayer vigils and pilgrimages to the Earnhardt homeland in Catawba County. I have heard “Freebird” played on the radio about five times more than I needed to hear it. And so it is that I have come to sit in the Lil Bar, in an ice storm, in deepest darkest February, to puzzle over it all.

The Lil Bar is a good place to watch the memorial. Sleet falls on the desolate parking lot and bends cedars to reverence in the surrounding fields. Inside, the tavern is dim and smoke-shrouded. It is lunch hour, and the seven or so patrons lined up like pallbearers along the bar have brung along fried chicken and home-grown pickled jalapeños. One of the men passes around some venison sausage, which gets seriously eyeballed by the sole non-human among us, name of Princess. Princess is one of those dogs, I never know what they’re called. Pekinese, maybe, or Lhasa Apso or Shih Tzu. She’s silky and buff-colored, with a velvety-black pug nose, and every now and then somebody hoists her onto the bar for a hug or a drumstick.

Into this sad space I am accepted without comment, offered beer and jalapeños and a pinch of snuff. A TV in the corner is showing video footage of Earnhardt, baby pictures, clips of him racing, hunting, kissing his wife, raising hell, hugging somebody’s neck.

“I still can’t believe it,” a woman in the bar says. “I can’t believe he’s gone.”

“It come over the radio when I was doing dishes,” another woman says. “It was all I could do to finish, just to hold it together.”

The memorial is held in the cavernous insides of Calvary Church, a pink-and-glass superstructure that makes St. Peter’s Cathedral look anemic and that hosts, on this day, some 3,000 greats and near-greats from the NASCAR establishment. The service is short, solemn. Somebody sings some songs and a smooth-talking, kid-faced preacher from the Motor Racing Outreach ministry tells about the first time he met Earnhardt. Said he imagined he’d find the great man eating raw bear meat off the bone, but he was just a nice guy, real friendly and all. At the end of the service, Dale’s widow Teresa blows kisses to the crowd and there is more singing.

The man beside me, I’ll call him Ben, endures the service as best he can, alternately crying and raising his beer to the TV set. Every time there is a prayer he takes his cap off; when it’s done, he puts it back on. When the praying is over, Ben tells me a joke: This famous race car driver named Neil Bonnet dies back in 1994 and goes to heaven. (“It idn’t one race car driver that won’t go to heaven,” Ben says.) And St. Peter meets him at the gate and says don’t worry, we got a track up here and we have a lot of fun. So they go up to the track together to take a look and Bonnet says, “Oh, there’s Fireball Robert’s car! There’s Davey Allison’s car.” All these drivers that’ve died. Then he looks down the track and says, “Hey there’s ol’ #3! I didn’t know Dale Earnhardt died.” And St. Peter says, “Oh, Earnhardt’s still alive, that’s God in the #3 car. He just wants to be Dale Earnhardt.”

“And now,” Ben says in a cracked voice, “and now God’s gotta get hisself another car.”

The next day, at the Iron Skillet truck stop off I-85, I hear the exact same joke, told by one Clarey Holt of Georgia. Clarey and his wife are on their way back from visiting grandchildren in Richmond, and they’re planning a detour to pick up some souvenirs at the Lowe’s Motor Speedway down in Charlotte. Sue says she cried for two days after Earnhardt was killed. “He was a good, good boy,” she says. “He was famous, but he remembered himself.”

When Clarey tells the joke I ask him if that’s why he liked Earnhardt, because he was like God down there on the track. Clarey Holt is 65 years old if he’s a day, but he’s driving a souped-up Ford Ranger that looks loaded and has about a dozen NRA stickers plastered on it. He throws his head back and laughs in a hooty sort of way, like a train. “Nooo-ooo-ooo-lawd!” he says. “That man was more like a devil out there. He was an Outlaw with a capital out.”

Earnhardt could race, true to tell. Oh, sure, there were a handful of people who hated him, hated how he played hardball on the track, menaced other drivers, got ornery and tore up cars. Hated the bad-ass man with the Gargoyle shades and the rock formation for a jaw.

But even the critics were tore up about him dying. I mean, here’s this guy, born poor in a mill town, drops out of school in the eighth grade, spends his childhood perched on a fender in his daddy’s garage. And then he gets a little bigger and starts racing the dirt tracks. And he gets a few breaks and next thing anybody knows it’s 1979 and Dale Earnhardt is NASCAR rookie of the year.

And that’s just the start, cause Big E, he just gets better and better. Before long, people are watching him closely, sponsors slobbering over him, women wanting him. He can bank high or low, hug the wall, drive wide, nose in tight. He knows how to pull speed from his engine, off the track, out of the very ions in the air. He’s the master of the bump draft, the king of the restrictor plate. The checkered flag loves him, and in his 22-year career he wins seven Winston Cup championships.

So, yeah, he’s good, but does that explain it? Somebody from NASCAR said it would be like if Michael Jordan died on the basketball court, but I don’t think so. Shock and sadness, sure, but this kind of grief? I talk to my non-racing-fan friends about it. They offer some theorizing about Earnhardt the beloved commercial presence; also, they point out that crashing into a wall at 180 mph and fracturing your skull and dying in front of millions is the ultimate reality TV.

But I think the truth is simpler than that. I think that to understand it you have to understand the larger legend of stock car racing, how it started during Prohibition, all wild and woolly with boys hauling bootleg across the washboard back roads of North Carolina. Prohibition ended, but racing persisted; it got to be so fun, folks took to running cars on Saturday nights at rough-cut tracks carved out of cow pastures. And there was a lot of rowdiness involved, and girls that look like those girls on Hee Haw, and a lot of necking. It may have been post-war America, with the New South up and coming in places like Raleigh and Atlanta, but the New South wasn’t showing its face in these rural outposts, where the mill bosses still ruled and boys were still born-bad. Racing was about busting out, knowing the rules and saying the hell with them. Because what could you get out of it except a dinky-ass promotion down at the textile plant and 10 more dollars a month to spend when you’re 50 years old and dying of brown lung?

Racing was freedom; it was flipping the bird to the establishment. And the whole thing would have gone about as far as organized cock fighting if Detroit hadn’t started funneling money into it. But they did, and the competitions got more organized, and circuits formed and suddenly there was money for parts and crews and tracks and drivers. And other sponsors started jumping in–big money, like tobacco–until the sport became what it is today, a multi-million-dollar-and-growing network TV extravaganza.

But here’s the thing. Racing has maybe gone all high-priced and corporate-glitzy, but the spectators–at least the hard-core ones, at least here in the South–are from more or less the same income bracket as their mamas and daddies were, back when the boys were racing on the dirt tracks. Or if they’re not, they’re only a generation away from it. So it means something when somebody like Earnhardt comes along. Because OK, the sport has gotten sanitized and tamed down, but here’s this guy, this outlaw with a capital out, this poor kid from down in Kannapolis who pulled himself up by his lug wrenches. And he’s still flipping the bird to the establishment, and making buckets of money. He’s doing all right.

One week after Dale Earnhardt dies I drive down to Rockingham to the North Carolina Speedway to watch the Dura Lube 400. The track itself is this big oval bowl dug out of the sand hills of Richmond County. It dwarfs the scrub pine that grow around it, and is in turn dwarfed by the big sky, which today looks all stormy and swimming with mackerel-bellied clouds.

Outside the gates at Rockingham fans have erected a makeshift shrine; there are flowers, balloons, handwritten poems, beer cans, grimy #3 caps, photographs. There’s a big pink conch shell on which someone has written, “In the sands of time your sun will never set.” A steady stream of people wander by, taking pictures, talking quietly, holding hands, crying. A woman with big yellow hair and leopard-print leotards puts a handwritten poem down. It reads, “Dale, you were our Promise, our Hope and Hearts, With you our Lives will NEVER PART.”

The poem makes me think about something a friend said to me earlier, how when Earnhardt got killed it got him thinking about Roberto Clemente, the Puerto Rican major-league baseball player who was National League Batting Champion four times and MVP in the 1971 World Series. Clemente sizzled, but he never lost track of his history, and insisted that all his children be born in Puerto Rico. My friend, who was in Puerto Rico six months after Clemente died in a plane crash, said he finally stopped bringing the baseball player up in conversation. “It was just too painful,” he said. “Clemente was theirs; he belonged to a whole people.”

I wonder if this isn’t the secret to Earnhardt. I wonder if people like Ben and Clarey and Sue Holt feel like they’ve lost one of their own, and not only one of their own, but a kind of promise–that in the end they’ll do all right too.

Later, up in the stands at Rockingham, I watch some of the race. The sky keeps threatening rain, so everybody’s antsy and the caution flag keeps dropping. I’ve never been to a stock car race before and I expect to dislike it. It takes about five minutes for the insectile scream of the cars to vaporize my brain stem, but otherwise the race is thrilling. Right next to me there’s this man named Don Moseley, and when I tell him it’s my first race he asks me where in the H-E-L-L I’ve been all my life. Moseley tells me it’s hard to get over a driver killed on the track. He says he saw Fireball Roberts get killed in 1964. “Got burned up,” he says. “Just like his name.”

On the other side of me, a man name Skeeter Little figures out I’m a reporter and he pipes up with all the crashes he’s seen. It starts to sprinkle, and I must look worried cause Skeeter jerks his chin at the sky. “You see those clouds up there?” he says, “they don’t matter at all to these people. They’re here to pay respect. Earnhardt was somebody you loved or you hated, for a fact. And even if you hated him, ol’ Big E, he’d worm his way into your heart. He was one racin’ fool.” Skeeter Little shakes his head and blinks back tears.

The sky is not so brave; it opens wide, and cries. EndBlock